To forgive someone, is to love them. We cannot forgive someone who has hurt us, without first being able to love them. So, the question of how we can forgive is deeply connected to the question of the quality of, and our capacity to, love.
In the Gospel chosen for this Pentecost Sunday (John 20:19-23) Jesus meets the disciples to give them the holy breath — the Holy Spirit. His breathing on them gives them the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sin.
But before he does this, he first says to them, “Peace be with you” — not once, but twice, in this short passage. The repetition of his greeting ought to make us pause, and reflect on what Jesus is doing here by repeating his opening statement to the disciples.
Let’s recall the story leading up to this passage: It is one of the first post-resurrection accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearing arrest by the same people who had just executed their Lord on the cross. They had just heard an unbelievable account of an empty tomb, and were not sure what to make of it. Judas was gone from the group, and Peter was still reeling from guilt in having denied knowing Jesus.
Many of the twelve must have felt incredible guilt from having abandoned Jesus during his torture and death. And suddenly, now, Jesus comes into their midst through a locked door. Quite probably, their initial reaction would have been of fear — perhaps Jesus was coming back to exact retribution and punishment on his unfaithful, denying and fickle followers. “Where were you when I needed you?” “Shame on you!” you could imagine what the disciples may have expected Jesus to say.
Is this not how we often feel? Our first reaction to any notion of relationship with God is riddled with guilt and fear. Because we are so unfaithful, so weak. We make mistakes, over and over. We fail in our discipleship, and in our relationships. We are not committed and we often do all the wrong sorts of things. No wonder the church is in such a mess! So, if Jesus would appear walking through these very doors this morning, I suspect many of us might start shaking in our boots.
I had to giggle at something someone posted in their Facebook page: It was a picture of a gigantic jelly fish. And we see this jelly fish from underneath the water, looking sideways at this rather ugly, translucent being with long entrails dangling downward from its broad bobble top.
The caption underneath reads: “The fact that jellyfish have survived since the beginning of time, despite not having brains, is great news for stupid people.” Indeed, especially when it comes to following Jesus, we are all sometimes stupid!
Jesus demonstrates God’s true nature by what he has to repeat over and over to try to get through our thick heads. “Peace be with you!” “No, didn’t you hear me? “Peace be with you!” “I come not to condemn you for your sins, but to love you as my precious children.” Jesus demonstrates the love of God. He forgives his numb-skulled disciples because underlying Jesus’ whole approach to them, and us, is an unconditional and expansive love that is not shaken by our messing up all of the time.
That is why God forgives us our sins. And that is why and how we will forgive others as God has forgiven us. Love. Unconditional. When we can retract all our expectations and claims on another person, then we can truly love them. When we stop projecting our expectations and desires upon another person, especially if they have done something to hurt us, then we are able to love them, and therefore forgive them.
I read about a reporter who was covering the conflict in Sarajevo some twenty years ago. The reporter saw a little girl shot by a sniper. He rushed to a man who was holding the child, and helped them both into his car.
As the reporter raced to the hospital the man in the back seat said: “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.” A little later he said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still breathing.” Still, later, he said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still warm.” Finally, he said, “Hurry, hurry. Oh, God, my child is getting cold.”
When they got to the hospital, the little girl was dead. The man who had been holding the child then said to the reporter, “There lies a terrible task before me now. I must now go and tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.”
The reporter was puzzled and responded, “I thought she was your child.” The man looked at him and said, “No. But aren’t they all our children?”
They are all our children. They are all God’s children. Christ sends us forth with the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to love them all. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Our capacity to love others — especially those different from us — will often determine our capacity to forgive. The people of the world are God’s loving creation, too. Our practice of showing compassion and care to all people reflects our capacity to love.
Can we do this? Can we bear faithful witness to God’s love and presence in our lives? Maybe not, if left to our own devices. But try we must. Fail, we often will. But don’t give up. Because Jesus will still come into our lives with an unconditional embrace of God’s love for you and for me. We have nothing to lose — certainly not God’s love.
And because of this great gift we have, Jesus will continue to say to us, “As the Father has sent me, so now, I send you.”
Come, Holy Spirit, come
Breathe into us the breath of new life,
Come with a mighty wind or on a soft breeze, and
Kindle our hearts on fire to go forth and fulfill your mission on earth.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.